Surveillance. Types of surveillance: cameras, telephones etc.

Surveillance is another word for monitoring of the behavior and activities of people, normally aimed at influencing, managing or protecting.In other words, surveillance is an ambiguous practice, which may create either positive or negative effects. Surveillance is sometimes done in a surreptitious manner. While it normally refers to observation of people or groups by government organizations, there are other types of surveillance like disease surveillance, which is monitoring the progress of a disease in a community.

“Surveillance” derives from the French word for “watching over”: “sur” means “from above”, while “veiller” means “to watch”. This term can be applied to observation from a distance using electronic equipment like CCTV cameras, or interception of electronically transmitted information like Internet traffic or telephone calls. Surveillance may also refer to simple, low-technology methods like human intelligence agents and postal interception.

Surveillance is a useful tool for the governments to control their citizens, recognize and monitor threats, and prevent criminal activity. Thanks to the programs like the Total Information Awareness and ADVISE, technologies like high speed surveillance PCs and biometrics software, and legislation like the Communications Assistance For Law Enforcement Act, the authorities today can easily monitor the activities of their subjects.

Nevertheless, a number of civil rights and privacy outfits, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union, are concerned that the government surveillance of citizens can result in a mass surveillance society without political and personal freedoms. Such fears have resulted in numerous lawsuits like Hepting vs. AT&T.

Surveillance Types

1. Postal services

With more people using faxes and e-mails, the importance of surveilling the postal system is reducing in favor of the web and phone surveillance. However, law enforcement and intelligence agencies are still able to intercept post in certain circumstances.

The CIA and FBI have performed 12 separate mail-opening campaigns targeted towards American citizens, where over 215,000 communications were intercepted, opened, and photographed.

2. Computer surveillance

Most of computer surveillance involves the monitoring of information and traffic online. For instance, in the United States, under the Communications Assistance For Law Enforcement Act, all telephone calls and Internet traffic are to be available for real-time monitoring by Federal law enforcement agencies.

However, there’s far too much information online for human investigators to manually search through. That’s why automated online surveillance computers look through the enormous amount of intercepted traffic and identify something interesting by using certain “trigger” keywords and phrases, checking certain types of the online services, or chatting with suspicious people. In fact, billions of dollars are spent annually by the FBI, the Information Awareness Office, and NSA to create, buy, enforce, and manage systems like Carnivore, NarusInsight, and ECHELON in order to intercept and analyze all of this information. As a result, computers should extract only useful data to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Personal computers are also a surveillance target due to the information they store. If somebody is able to install software like the FBI’s Magic Lantern and CIPAV on a PC, they can easily gain unauthorized access to this information.

TEMPEST is one more form of computer surveillance, involving reading electromagnetic emanations from the devices, which can allow to distantly extract information from them.

As for the NSA, it also runs a database called “Pinwale”, storing and indexing lots of emails of the Americans and foreigners.

3. Surveillance cameras

Surveillance cameras are video cameras that observe an area. In most cases, they are connected to a recording device or IP network, and watched by security personnel. Earlier, cameras and recording equipment were quite expensive and required human personnel to monitor the camera footage. However, with modern cheaper production techniques, it became simple and inexpensive for home security systems or everyday surveillance. The consequent analysis of footage is also simplified by automated software which converts digital video footage into a searchable database and analyzes it. Today the amount of footage is also reduced by motion detectors.

According to the statistics, the use of surveillance cameras by both authorities and businesses has dramatically increased over the last decade. In the US, for example, the Department of Homeland Security provides billions of dollars annually in Homeland Security grants for the agencies of all levels to install video surveillance equipment. The city of Chicago, for instance, recently used a $5.1 million grant to install 250 more surveillance cameras connected to a monitoring center. In the meantime, the city had already had the network of more that 2000 cameras in frames of the program called Operation Virtual Shield. The city Mayor Richard Daley promised that Chicago will have a surveillance camera on every corner by 2016.

Surveillance camera

In accordance with China’s Golden Shield Project, a number of American corporations, including General Electric, IBM and Honeywell, have been cooperating with the Chinese authorities to install millions of surveillance cameras across China, equipped with advanced video analytics and facial recognition software allowing to identify and track people wherever they go. The cameras will be connected to a database and monitoring station which in the end will contain a picture of every Chinese citizen: more than 1.3 billion people. According to Lin Jiang Huai, who leads the counrty’s Information Security Technology office, he recognizes the surveillance systems in the US and the United Kingdom as the inspiration for what the Golden Shield project is aimed at.

Another example is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (dubbed DARPA), which is funding a research project Combat Zones That See. The latter will link up cameras across the city to a monitoring station in order to identify and track people and vehicles as they move across the city and report suspicious activity.

A decade ago, at Super Bowl XXXV, the police in Florida used Identix’s facial recognition software called FaceIt in order to scan the crowd for potential criminals and terrorists. As a result, 19 individuals were found with pending arrest warrants.

In most cases, the authorities promise that the cameras are meant to be used for traffic control, but end up using them for general surveillance. Washington, D.C., for example, had 5,000 cameras installed to control traffic, but when they were all in place, the authorities networked them all together and allowed access to the Metropolitan Police Department to perform everyday monitoring.

The appearance of the centralized networks of surveillance cameras monitoring public areas and linked to centralized databases of citizens’ pictures and identity (biometric data), which can track everyone’s movements throughout the city, was argued by many to be a risk to civil liberties.

4. Telephones

In fact, both official and unofficial tapping of telephone lines is very widespread. For example, in the United States of America the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (dubbed CALEA) requires that all phone and VoIP communications be available for real-time wiretapping by the law enforcement agencies. That’s why two largest telecommunications companies in the country, AT&T and Verizon, have contracts with the FBI, which require them to keep their telephone call records accessible for federal agencies. The companies are paid $1.8 million dollars annually for this. Within 2 years, the FBI sent out over 140,000 “National Security Letters” which ordered telephone companies to hand over data about their customers’ calling and online histories. 50% of them requested data on American citizens.

In most cases, human agents are not needed to monitor the phone calls. Speech-to-text software is able to create machine-readable text from the intercepted audio. The text is then processed by automated call-analysis programs written by the agencies like the Information Awareness Office, or companies like Verint and Narus. The software searches for specific words or phrases in order to decide whether to dedicate a human agent to the call.

Moreover, law enforcement and intelligence services in the UK and the US have technology that allows remotely activating the microphones in cell phones by accessing devices’ diagnostic or maintenance features and listening to conversations around the person holding the phone.

In addition, mobile phones are also often used to collect location information. This is how it is done: the geographical location of a phone and the person holding it can be found by calculating the differences in time for a signal to travel from the mobile phone to cell towers near the device. In the United States, the debates continue over the legality of such technique and especially over the question whether a court warrant is required. For instance, the records for one carrier revealed that in a given year federal law enforcement agencies requested mobile phone location data 8,000,000 times.

5. Social network analysis

Another popular form of surveillance is to create maps of social networks on the basis of information from such services as Facebook, and Twitter, coupled with the traffic analysis data from phone call records. After this, such social network maps are data mined in order to extract useful details, including personal interests, friendships & affiliations, beliefs, and activities.

A lot of American government agencies like the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), NSA and DHS have been investing in research involving social network analysis. According to the intelligence community, the biggest threat to the American power comes from decentralized groups of terrorists, extremists, and dissidents. Such threats can be easily countered by searching for important nodes in the network and removing them. That’s where the authorities will need a detailed map of the network.

There has been an interesting study conducted by Jason Ethier of Northeastern University and dedicated to modern social network analysis (the Scalable Social Network Analysis Program), where the author says that the aim of the SSNA algorithms program is to help with distinguishing potential terrorist cells from legal groups of people. The system will require data on the social interactions of the majority of people on the Earth. Taking into account the fact that the Defense Department can’t easily distinguish between peaceful people and terrorists, they will have to collect data on both innocent civilians and potential terrorists.

AT&T has even developed a programming language dubbed “Hancock”, which is able to sift through large databases of the phone call and Internet traffic records of NSA and extract data on groups of citizens who either regularly call each other or visit certain websites. The company has initially created the system to develop “marketing leads”, but the federal authorities have regularly requested such data from phone companies without a warrant. After using the information, the FBI stored all data received in its own databases, no matter if it was ever useful in an investigation.

Some industry observers think that the use of social networking websites is a kind of participatory surveillance, which means that the users of these websites are actually performing surveillance on themselves, publishing detailed personal data on public services where it can be viewed by anyone. Around 1/5 of employers are also using social networks to collect personal information on prospective or current employees.

6. Aerial surveillance

Aerial surveillance is the gathering of visual imagery or video from an airborne vehicle, normally unmanned aerial vehicle, helicopter, or spy plane. As for military surveillance aircraft, it uses a number of sensors (like radar) in order to monitor the battlefield.

Thanks to digital imaging technology and many other technological advances, aerial surveillance hardware is rapidly developing, including micro-aerial vehicles, forward-looking infrared, and even high-resolution imagery able to identify objects at very long distances. For example, the MQ-9 Reaper, an American drone plane used for domestic operations by the DHS, has cameras able to identify an object the size of a milk carton from altitudes of 60,000 ft. It also carries forward-looking infrared devices allowing for a human body heat detection at distances of up to 60 km.

Aerial surveillance

The DHS is currently in the process of testing UAVs to patrol the skies over the country, aimed at critical infrastructure protection and general surveillance of the citizens. In the meantime, Miami-Dade Police Department is running tests with a vertical take-off and landing UAV from Honeywell, which is expected to be used in SWAT operations. Houston’s Police Department has also been testing fixed-wing UAVs for “traffic control” purposes. The UK is also working on plans to create a fleet of surveillance UAVs – from micro-aerial vehicles to full-size drones – and use them across the country.

There are also programs like the Heterogenous Aerial Reconnaissance Team, developed by DARPA and having automated the aerial surveillance process. The programs in question have developed systems with large teams drone planes piloting themselves, which could automatically decide who is suspicious and how to monitor the suspects. As a result, the amount of area to be continuously monitored increased, while the number of human operators was reduced. In other words, a swarm of automated, self-directing drones is able to automatically patrol an area and track suspicious people and groups, reporting their activities back to a monitoring station.

7. Biometric surveillance

Biometric surveillance is a technology which measures and analyzes physical and behavioral characteristics of people for authentication purposes. They include fingerprints, DNA, facial patterns, gait and voice.

Facial recognition involves the use of the configuration of someone’s facial features in order to accurately identify the person, normally from surveillance video. Such agencies as the DHS and DARPA keep heavily investing into facial recognition systems. As a result, the Information Processing Technology Office has created software called Human Identification at a Distance, which can identify a person at up to 500 ft by their facial features.

One more form of behavioral biometrics, which is based on affective computing, recognizes an individual’s emotional state by analyzing their facial expressions, speed of speech, tone and pitch of the voice, posture, etc. Such approach can be used to find out whether a person is acting “suspicious”.

Biometric surveillance

The latest development is DNA fingerprinting that looks at some of the major markers in the body’s DNA to produce a match. Federal agencies are spending $1 billion on building a new biometric database to store DNA, facial recognition information, iris/retina (eye) information, palm prints, fingerprints, and other biometric characteristics of the US citizens. The PCs running the database are located in an underground facility which occupies an area equal to 2 American football fields.

The LA Police Department is currently installing automated facial recognition and license plate recognition hardware in its squad cars. They will also give handheld face scanners to the officers which they will use to identify people while on patrol.

At the moment, facial thermographs are in the process of development. They will allow the computers to identify certain emotions in people, like fear or stress, by measuring the temperature generated by their blood flow to the face. Experts think that this has potential to identify when a suspect is nervous, i.e. is worried, hiding something, or lying.

8. Data mining & profiling

Data mining is conducted by applying the statistical techniques and programmatic algorithms in order to find previously unnoticed relationships within the information. Therefore, data profiling represents the process of assembling data about a particular person or a group to create a profile (a picture of their patterns and behavior). In fact, it can be a very powerful instrument for psychological and social network analysis, which can reveal facts about an individual that they might not even be consciously aware of themselves.

Different transactions in our society, including economic (credit card purchases) and social (phone calls and emails), usually create vast amounts of stored information and records. Previously, this information was either documented in paper records, which left a so-called “paper trail”, or wasn’t documented at all. Meanwhile, correlation of paper records used to be a laborious process, which required human intelligence operators, who had to manually dig through papers. This took a lot of time and was incomplete, at best.

Nowadays, major part of such records is electronic, leaving an “electronic trail”. Each time you pay by credit card, use a bank machine or a phone card, make a phone call from home, rent a video, check out library book, or complete any other recorded transaction, an electronic record is generated. Today public records, including birth, court, tax and other records, are increasingly being digitized and made available on the web. Moreover, thanks to the laws like CALEA, Internet traffic and online purchases can also be available for profiling. Electronic method of keeping records makes information easily collectable, storable, and accessible, lowering the cost of high-volume and efficient aggregation and analysis.

Data about many individual transactions is usually easily available as it’s generally not guarded in isolation. The matter is that such data as the title of a rented film might not seem sensitive to some. Nevertheless, such transactions, when aggregated, can be used to assemble a detailed profile which reveals the habits, beliefs and locations of the person. Such profile can later be used by programs like ADVISE and TALON in order to find out whether the person represents any military, criminal or political threat.

Aside from its own aggregation and profiling instruments, the government can access data from the 3rd parties – for instance, banks, credit companies or employers. This can be done by requesting access informally, by using subpoenas or other procedures, or by buying information from commercial data brokers. The US has spent around $370 million on 43 planned fusion centers, which formed a national network of surveillance centers situated in more than 30 states. Their purpose is to collect and analyze large amount of information on American citizens by consolidating personal data from sources like state driver’s licensing agencies, hospital, criminal and school records, banks, etc., and putting this data in a centralized database all of the centers and agencies have access to.

By the way, under U.S. vs. Miller (1976), information held by 3rd parties is normally not subject to 4th Amendment warrant requirements.

9. Human operatives

Companies that have enemies willing to collect information about the group’s members or activities have to face the issue of infiltration.

Aside from the operatives’ infiltrating an organization, the surveilling company might exert pressure on some members of the target outfit to act as informants (in other words, to disclose the data they hold on the company and its members).

However, fielding operatives is a very expensive issue, and the governments with wide-reaching electronic surveillance instruments at their disposal can obtain the data from operatives using less problematic forms of surveillance. However, human infiltrators are still used these days. For example, 5 years ago documents leaked reveling that the FBI was going to field around 15,000 undercover agents and informants as part of an anti-terrorism directive sent out by George W. Bush in 2004.

10. Corporate surveillance

Apparently, corporate surveillance is the monitoring of someone’s behavior by a corporation. The information gathered is normally used for marketing purposes or sold to other companies. In addition, it can be shared with the authorities. The information collected can be used as a form of business intelligence that enables the company to better tailor their products or services to the customers’ needs. In case the information is sold to other companies, it is used by them for the same purpose or for direct marketing purposes, like targeted advertisements on search engines, where adverts are targeted to the user of the service by analyzing their search history and emails stored in a database.

For example, Google, the most popular search engine in the world, keeps identifying data for each search, including an IP address and the search phrase in a database for more than a year. It also scans the content of Gmail emails to create targeted advertising based on what the users are talking about in their correspondences. Thus far, Google is recognized as the largest online advertising agency: millions of websites feature its advertising banners and links, which allows them to earn money from the users who click on the ads. In the meantime, each page that contains Google ads modifies “cookies” on each user’s PC, which track the visitor throughout all of the websites and collect data about their online surfing habits. The “cookies” also keep track of the services people visit and their activities there. This data, along with the data from email accounts and search engine histories, is kept by the search engine to be used later for building a profile of the user and provide better-targeted advertising.

The survey about electronic monitoring and surveillance with about 300 American companies was conducted by American Management Association and the ePolicy Institute. It revealed that over 25% of employers have fired their employees for misusing e-mail and around 30% have fired workers for misusing the worldwide web. Over 40% of the companies monitor e-mail traffic of their employees, while 66% of companies also monitor online connections. Moreover, most employers use software to block non-work related online services including porn sites, game sites, social networks, and sport sites. The report also highlights that some companies go as far as to track content, keystrokes, and time spent at the keyboard, review computer files and monitor the blogosphere to find out what their employees write about the company.

The U.S. authorities often get access to such corporate databases, both formally and informally. The DHS has openly announced that it uses information gathered from consumer credit and direct marketing agencies like Google to augment the profiles of users under monitoring. Overall, federal agencies have formed a data-sharing partnership with more than 34,000 companies as part of their Infragard program.

The American government has even collected data from grocery store discount card programs, which allows them to track customers’ shopping patterns and keep them in databases in order to somehow find terrorists by analyzing their buying habits.

11. Satellite imagery

In 2007, the National Applications Office of the DHS was authorized to grant federal agencies an access to imagery from military intelligence satellites and aircraft sensors in order to be used to observe the activities of American citizens. Meanwhile, the satellites and aircraft sensors can penetrate cloud cover, detect chemical traces, and identify objects to provide real-time video at high resolutions.

12. Identification and credentials

The simplest form of identification is considered to be the carrying of credentials. Some countries have an identity card system in place aimed at aiding identification. Others, including the United Kingdom, are considering this system but face public opposition. The documents like passports and driver’s licenses can also be used to verify identity.

n case the identity card is “machine-readable”, i.e. using an encoded magnetic stripe or identification number (like a Social Security number), it will corroborate the subject’s identifying information. Thus, it may create an electronic trail when checked and scanned. This can later be used in profiling.

13. Radio frequency identification and geolocation devices

a) Radio Frequency Identification tagging

Radio frequency identification tagging is done with the help of very small electronic devices applied to or incorporated into a gadget, animal, or person with the purpose of identification and tracking via radio waves. Such RFID tags can be read from a few meters away. They are quite cheap, costing a few cents per piece, and can be placed into many types of everyday products without increasing the price much. The tags can be used to track and identify objects for many purposes.

A number of corporations are already tagging their employees, who are monitored while on the job. The British workers went on general strike in protest of such practice, claiming that it was dehumanizing to have all of their activities tracked with the chips. The critics feared that people could soon be tracked and scanned wherever they go.

RFID tagging

For instance, Verichip is an RFID device made by Applied Digital Solutions (ADS) company. It is slightly larger than a grain of rice and should be injected under the skin. The procedure is reported to feel like receiving a shot. The chip, encased in glass, carries a “VeriChip Subscriber Number” which allows the scanner to access personal data online from Verichip Inc.’s database. Thus far, thousands of people are reported to have them inserted, including 160 Mexican workers at the Attorney General’s, for identity verification and access control purposes.

A 9-year-old editorial of the political correspondent even speculated that in the nearest future each purchased object will have RFID devices in them to respond with data about people as they walk past scanners. For instance, there will be information on the type of cell phone and brand of shoes, books in the hands, credit cards or membership cards they have. Later this data could easily be used to identify, track, or apply targeted marketing. Fortunately, this has largely not come to pass thus far.

b) Global Positioning System (GPS)

In the United States, the police may plant hidden Global Positioning System (GPS) tracking devices in the vehicles to monitor the movements of their owners, without a warrant. 3 years ago, the authorities were arguing in court that they have the right to do this. A number of cities are currently running pilot projects that require parolees to wear GPS devices in order to track their movements after they get out of prison.

c) Mobile phones

Mobile phones can also be often used to gather geolocation information of the device and thus the individual carrying it. It can be determined quite easily, regardless of whether the phone is being used or not, through technique described above, which calculates the differences in time for a signal to travel from the mobile to cell towers.

Surveillance gadgets

Surveillance devices, known as “bugs”, are hidden gadgets used to capture, record, and transmit information to a receiving party. The United States has run various domestic intelligence projects like COINTELPRO, which have bugged the houses, offices, and cars of thousands of American citizens, mostly politicians, subversives, and criminals.

Law enforcement agencies both in the United Kingdom and the United States have technology that allows to remotely activate microphones in mobile phones through the diagnostic or maintenance features of the device and listen to conversations around the person who carries the phone.

Controversy around Surveillance

Supporters of surveillance systems

The supporters of surveillance systems think that these instruments are able to protect society from criminals or that there’s nothing they can do about such tools and therefore people should become accustomed to having no privacy. The main argument is that if the person isn’t doing anything wrong, they don’t have anything to fear. In other words, people engaged in illegal activities automatically lose a legitimate justification for their privacy. In the meantime, the surveillance wouldn’t affect people who follow the law.

Camera in the park


Others believe that the claims made by surveillance supporters sound like “as long as people do what they’re told, they have nothing to fear”. For example, members of a political group that opposes the policies of the national government obviously do not want the government to know their details and what they have been reading about, because this data will let the authorities easily subvert their organization, arrest, or kill them. In addition, critics claim that while an individual might not have anything to hide at the moment, the government might later introduce policies that they really wish to oppose. However, their opposition might then be impossible because of the mass surveillance enabling the authorities to identify and remove political threats. Finally, the critics remind that most people have things to hide: even if someone is just looking for a new job, he or she usually doesn’t want the current employer to know this.

Psychological and social effects

A number of critics think that aside from its obvious function of identifying and capturing people committing undesirable acts, surveillance can also create a feeling of constantly being watched, which results in people becoming self-policing. It allows the government to control the populace without attracting expensive and problematic physical force.


Such programs as the Total Information Awareness, and legislation like the Communications Assistance For Law Enforcement Act made people fear that our society started moving towards a state of mass surveillance with very limited or absent personal freedoms, with dissenting people being strategically removed in COINTELPRO-like purges.

People started noticing the blurring of lines between public and private places, as well as the privatization of places that were traditionally seen as public (shopping malls and industrial parks), because they can clearly illustrate the increasing legality of gathering personal data. While traveling through numerous public places like government offices can hardly be optional for people, the consumers don’t have other choice rather than to submit to companies’ surveillance practices. In the meantime, surveillance techniques aren’t equal: for example, among biometric identification technologies, face recognition needs the least cooperation. Indeed, if compared to automatic fingerprint reading, which requires a person to press a finger, face recognition is subtle and requires almost no consent.


Many civil rights outfits and privacy groups, including Electronic Privacy Information Center, EFF and American Civil Liberties Union, blame surveillance for violation of human right to privacy. The courts also saw a number of lawsuits, e.g. Hepting vs. AT&T or EPIC vs. DoJ, launched by groups or individuals who opposed certain surveillance methods.

As for the legislative proceedings, including those during the Church Committee that investigated domestic intelligence programs like COINTELPRO, have also weighed the advantages and drawbacks of surveillance.

Responds to Surveillance

Counter surveillance is known as the practice of avoiding surveillance or making it difficult. The latest developments have led to dramatic growth of the counter surveillance in both scope and complexity, including online, increasing prevalence of electronic security systems, high-altitude UAVs, and huge corporate and government electronic databases.

Another practice is called inverse surveillance and represents reversalism on surveillance (for example, people photographing police). Popular examples include George Holliday’s recording of the Rodney King beating and the Copwatch outfit, which tries to surveille police officers to prevent police brutality. Finally, sousveillance is a practice which refers to inverse surveillance, but includes the recording of an activity by its participant.